june on the farm : brassicas and bullcalves, swathers and spinach.

Summer has arrived and lovely green things have sprouted in the garden. I want to say « against all odds! » and realize that a) this was my anthem last year; and b) it’s a bit over the top. The garden is not growing against all odds. Seeds want to grow. Especially the ones that are direct seeded, I’ve found.

I got very excited reading Elliot Coleman during the winter months and convinced myself it was a great idea to seed a lot of crops in trays in the basement under lights to ensure both a better use of (near unlimited) space in the garden and to avoid excessive crouching and squatting. The seedlings didn’t fare very well at all. The lights were too high off the trays (which left us with spindly everythings) and either it was too cold, or they would have liked to be watered from the bottom or more regularly or something. Oh and the bulk of plants that made it to transplant day were then killed by a surprise frost a few days later. Ha! All this to say, I am not a market gardener and I don’t need early or exquisite crops. So I may skip the whole pre-planting thing next year.

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The bull calves + Ursula (our family dairy cow) left the barn area, ate away our side pasture to a nice manageable height, and were moved across the road, where they’re intensively rotationally grazing with glee.

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This is also, hopefully, the last year that yearlings need to be purchased. The plan is to grow our own herd. To overwinter animals and keep them on the farm for two years before sending them to the abattoir to be CSA beef shares. Here are those new yearlings, taking in their new summer home.

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Here’s P. posing with our new-to-us and very old swather ! Why a swather, you ask? To cut grain crops. P. has seeded barley and triticale which we’re planning to use as pig feed next year (to make the endeavour more financially viable as organic feed is pretty costly).

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One victory of the last weeks has been P. and J. removing all the rotten pressure treated forest green and orange fenceposts from around the barn pasture. The colour scheme of this place makes me sigh a mighty sigh almost daily and seeing those posts being harvested one by one and carried off brought great joy to my heart. Now we just need to finally host that great « Paint the Barn Red! » event and I will be one happy camper. (I’m serious, if you’re reading this and interested, let me know. We’ll make it a fun time, I promise.)

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And piglets ! Twenty-four piglets, who were around six weeks old, arrived late last week. They have been on pasture since Monday and have gotten the hang of it. Sadly, one little guy, lovingly nicknamed Pickle isn’t doing super well, but his buddies are happy and healthy as clams.

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The barn cat problem is far from resolved, sadly. The good folks at the SPCA can’t help (their feral barn cat pilot project starts after Christmas, turns out), so I’m at a bit of a loss, again, as to how to proceed. Perhaps the municipality has some solutions to offer, but in the meantime, our seven or so adult cats are looking very worse for wear, the kittens are not as numerous as they were (although at least they are no longer being hidden in barn walls and feed bags by their mothers as they were a month ago), and the sadness that comes with feeding these sad looking animals daily is wearing on me. If it is unethical to shoot them, (as rural/farm folk have suggested we do), then leaving them all to fight and procreate and lose the battle to whatever disease(s) seems equally heartless.

With research work winding down, the garden has been weeded and (some) tidy rows of growing things have been uncovered. The beans and peas, potatoes, rutabaga, kale, cauliflower, lettuces, spinach, sweet corn, popcorn, leeks and onions have so far really shone. There seems to be too few summer and winter squash plants, so I hope I haven’t swung the pendulum too far the other way (in an effort to not have to deal with the processing of wheelbarrowfuls of zucchini and Godiva pumpkins).

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The week’s personal victory (save for finding a doula for my upcoming birthing!) was the blanching and freezing of 18 pounds of spinach. Take that winter ! Saag paneer year round !

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And last but not least, and to confirm that « home ownership is not all it’s cracked up to be », a few of our appliances have decided to have a little race to the bottom as of late. The dishwasher now spews the occasional moat, the 85 gallon toilet sometimes thinks we’re interested in a nice continuous « babbling brook » soundtrack, and our old wall oven has gone and burnt its bottom element clear through. Luckily I have a wicked smart partner who can cook the best of quiches using a stock pot and a canning rack to create an « oven like » heat.

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The list of things to get done before birthing is too long. For those visiting this summer, our house may very well not be painted majestic blue by the time you arrive, and we may not have a deck or any outdoor seating that isn’t cement or a wagon. Please bear with us.

Stay tuned for my next post on the theme of : stress and precarity.

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the cull cow dilemma

 

Okay, hear me out.

 

We have an old cow (a cull cow) who’s losing weight and quite old. We bought a herd this Spring and have been surprised by the advanced age of some of the cows. When animals aren’t doing super well after a luscious summer on fresh pasture, it doesn’t bode well for them for winter. Our vet said there wasn’t anything she could do for the animal and the best thing for us to do would be to ship her to auction. From what I understand, animals shipped to auction are bought for feed lots and feed lot animals are not treated well.

We care deeply about our cattle, but can’t afford to feed an animal who will deteriorate during the season and cost a fair amount to have her body removed from the pastures should she pass.

Since she hasn’t spent the bulk of her life at our farm, we can’t guarantee that she is entirely ‘grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic free’ as we do our yearlings, but she has been pasture fed since her arrival in May. Our 5+ year plan is to have a closed herd, with all animals born here. At that time, our older cattle would be turned into ground beef and we won’t have to deal with this issue of auctions and of how to recoup costs without sacrificing our ethics.

In the meantime though, I feel we have an unspoken agreement with the cattle here. They get all the fresh pasture they can eat, move about freely, have water aplenty always, their young with them for as long as it is feasible, and they are not shipped to feed lots (or to any place where we feel they won’t be treated with the same respect and care they receive here).

As a result, we would feel better about sending her to the abattoir and selling her meat, knowing that she lived well and that she won’t needlessly endure hardship. However, the cow is older and skinnier and we have no way of knowing the quality of the meat (i.e. steaks wouldn’t be great but ground beef should be alright). So we’re brainstorming ways of marketing this ‘compassion beef’.

 

So we’re wondering :

Would you be interested in buying sausages, salami or ground beef for this or other such animals? Or meat for pets?

Alternatively, do you have any other ideas of ways to transform and market this meat?

 

the abattoir.

 

We spent a few hours packing meat at the abattoir tonight. I had never really spent much time in a factory type workplace before. A place where people have to wear hairnets and hard hats, smocks and special footwear. I was struck by the clear class hierarchies in there. by the prevalence of class. the shift work, the lay offs and the concern for EI eligibility (because of an arbitrary number of hours required to qualify for an insurance that you paid into). c’était marxiste comme expérience. the machines, the conveyor belts, the bright fluorescents, the scales, the shelving, the concrete. For a sociologist, it was seeing the workplace and work culture that taylorism and fordism built.

(In writing this, I realize that most of my older-than-me relatives have worked in factories. pas mal dommage que j’en ai pas un souvenir, une expérience).

 

I’ve been meaning to write about my uneasiness with meat, with breeding animals for humans to eat them, for some time. tonight’s not the night, but between the sorting of cattle in the corral this afternoon (for them to be trucked out tomorrow in the early a.m.), to this packing of boxes of meat cuts, it’s been quite a carnovire-heavy day.

 

 

 

 

the cattle side of things.

 

in three weeks’ time, the farm stay of our beloved friend d. will sadly come to a close. it occured to me that i should take full advantage of having a third adult here to spend my afternoons (sans kid) working with p. learning more about the cattle side of things. i’m appreciating this time of out of doors problem solving. to walk through these late fall pastures along red hills. to get this very real sense of why p. does what he does and why he loves it.

as much as i claim to love the great outdoors, i spend an awful lot of time indoors.

and there is something to be said about songbirds and flocks of geese. muddy boots and the smell of these trees.

 

 

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here the yearlings are grazing in the fields that have recently been combined. we have about four tons of oats and a dozen bales of straw to show for it. some of those oats will be for ursula (our dairy cow) and the straw will be used mainly as bedding for her, for the hens, (and any other animal needing it), and for the garden (there will be no weeding between rows next year! and hopefully fewer potato beetles and no late blight).

 

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helping move fences to give the cattle fresh pasture. giving me an appreciation for the migration patterns that intensive rotational grazing seeks to mimick.

 

 

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i drove the quad for the first time (standard driving? no problem!). oftentimes when the cattle are moved to a new pasture, the pasture pumps need to be moved as well. p. used to do this with a wheelbarrow, but we’re taking advantage of the farm quad this year.

 

 

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in the spring, we signed up, p. and i, to take part in an organic plant breeding trial with the university of manitoba. we’re growing some wheat (including some red fife!) for them and ourselves. sadly, we seeded in fields that aren’t tiled drained, and that haven’t gotten enough love these past years to be able to absorb the rainfalls. we’re working on it, but in the meantime, i’m not sure we’ll get great yields. hélas.

 

 

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there are days and weeks when i still really wonder what i’m doing here and what will come of all of this. and there are others when i’m traipsing in wet fields with these two and feeling pretty grateful and content that we get to work together, to learn and to create this together. the rest just might sort itself out, j’me dis.

 

what the hay.

 

one should make hay when the sun shines, so in a fencing lull, with our eye on the weekly forecast, we went about making plans to cut, ted, rake, and bale a few pastures. we need around eight hundred bales to feed the cow-calf pairs through the winter and i think both p. and i were getting pretty anxious seeing the neighbours hauling cart after cart of luscious golden hay, so the time was ripe.

 

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we were hoping to harvest at least a hundred bales and we figured we’d need at least four consecutive  days of sun and warmth to get the job done. the thermostat was to be in the 30s for a solid mid-week and the sun was set to shine. we embarked. hay making means something like sixteen hour days, endless hours bumping along in a tractor, and being super OCD about listening to weather reports.

 

 

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when p. started talking about us « entering hay season », we were all pretty stoked to partake in this true farm experience.  turns out it’s a lot of taking over someone else’s house chores (cooking, milking, etc.) and not that much excitement. regardless, all of those who wanted tractor shifts got a kick at the can. i’ll admit it was my first time driving the thing. and as a standard vehicle, let me tell you, it’s easier to drive than our focus.

 

 

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here’s the hay tedder. the teeth spin to aerate and spread the grasses out, or to « wuffle » the hay, to expose more of the cut to sunlight, air and wind and thus speed up the hay-making process.

 

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and here’s the awesome warning sticker on the tedder. the words, if there were any, have rubbed off, but that twirly body says it all.

 

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despite five solid days of heat and sun, the humidity and stillness of the air did us in. on the sixth day it poured. it rained like it hadn’t in months. p. managed to bale 30 solid bales of dry stuff, 50 of moist, and the rest is still (rotting) in the fields a week later. so effin deflating. in cities, you just don’t have that sort of experience. my closest is probably when a day or two of freezing rain in february ruins the ice on the rideau canal and the city closes the skateway for the season despite an upcoming cold snap. it’s never been about livelihood for me. and these failed bales totally are. there’s also a significant strain from having a partner away for a child’s entire waking hours, from rejigging house chores, and from not really sharing daily experiences enough for true empathy. mais c’est la vie, these days.

 

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here’s p. rolling in with the dry bales in the pouring rain.

we’re going to be giving it another go in september. and undoubtedly buying a bunch of hay for our first winter.

power tools, poison control and other lessons.

 

Sprouting tips have started coming up all over the garden. I feel as though I am witnessing a great springtime miracle. The potatoes are up, the sweet corn, the popcorn, the brassicas, the beans, the onions, the leeks, the beets, the winter squash. The summer squash and pumpkins, the peas and the basil. Plus the tomatoes survived the late transplant and the rains of the past few days mean that I get evenings off from running around, moving our single sprinkler around to make sure everything gets a good soak.

(on that note : having an « A » shaped garden makes it really hard to water. maybe there’s a reason people typically have rectangular shaped plots. 20/20 hindsight.)

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The grasses’ slow takeover is hard to keep up with but keeping up I am.

The fields that had been left bare have now been cultivated and seeded, the last of the kitchen wallpaper has been ripped off, and we’re keeping up with Ursula Franklin’s milk production. Busy and good days.

 

Some thoughts and lessons from the last few days.

 

1. there is such a thing as too frugal. sometimes you need to just get rid of rusty, old, bent nails.

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2. no matter how many times i see these pasture pumps, i’m still quite taken with how smart the technology is. the cattle essentially come to the pumps, see the bit of water pooled at the back and, in trying to drink it, they push the lever, which pumps more water into the trough portion.

 

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3. i too can make attractive looking butter.

 

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4. like human beings, cattle love shade on hot sunny days.

 

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5. sometimes, a kick in the ass is needed to DIY. you need to feel quite badly that the dairy cow has no shade to pick up some power tools (for the first time ever!) to build a shade structure some for her.

(and on that note : do me a favour, if there’s a kid in your life who might not otherwise learn how to work tools or machinery (and you do know), offer to teach them. i’d give a great deal to have the same tinker-confidence as the menfolk around here.)

 

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6. Even if you have had a very urban appreciation for animals (as pets), when you inherit 10+ barn cats, you become a bit more pragmatic (especially when a number of them have seen better days. and are in heat. and you spot a litter of kittens.)

 

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7. mixing seed by hand (because the folks seeding have run out and you need to rush to the store to shell out a big lump sum to get more and have it ready asap because the rains are coming) is a very esthetically pleasing process.

 

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8. sometimes you accidently purchase seed that’s been treated with a fungicide. and sometimes that seed will be spread all over the place. and sometimes your kid will put some in his mouth. having the number for poison control on your refrigerator is always a good idea (and man are those people awesome! courteous and quick help. having a few tele-health ontario fiasco phone calls under my belt, let me tell you, those poison control people are fast and pleasant).

 

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9. even if their boots have cracks in them and their feet instantly become really cold and mud-wet, kids will gallivant in a downpour, in the rain, through the puddles for as long as you’ll let them.

 

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10. even if you curse all the laundry that needs to get done (see number 9), you still think your clotheslines look really beautiful in the evening skies.

 

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on the farm. day three.

We moved onto the farm three days ago. I am writing from a house that’s nestled between a highway, a barn and some mountains. The pastures are greening, the birds chirping, the cars zipping past, and the former owner is still hanging around, using our tractor to move farm implements in some master plan that we have yet to grasp. We are simultaneously peeling off old yellowed wallpaper, replacing drywall in the kitchen, trying to find the source of a leak with the inherited washing machine, pounding fence posts and installing fence lines to move the cattle off the conventional mucky paddock they’ve been on since they arrived here a month ago, finding a veterinarian to figure out what’s wrong with our feverish Jersey dairy cow, and taking care of a curious toddler in a space that is not childproofed in the least.

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In the same way that I had a hard time conceptualizing what forty-two tonnes of sulphur looked like prior to seeing the delivery of fertilizers that came yesterday, I still don’t fully grasp the extent of the work that lays ahead. It is endless. It is overwhelming. Empowering too to think that Paul and I can make this place our farm home, we can set it up as we please, and decide for ourselves the makeup of our days. But it is still so so much to take in.

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And then there’s the lost feeling of home and rootedness. The not knowing how to carve out a space here. These feelings of being quite lost and scattered amidst the overwork, the sharp edges of exhaustion, and this rural newness.

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But I am grateful for the strolls through the fields as we install insulators for the electrical fencing. I am grateful for a partner with more know-how than I realized. Grateful for the remarkable friend who came and so generously stayed with us for two whole weeks to work, to keep us company and to keep us sane. Grateful for this child who’s so eager to get his rubber boots on to go look at the calves and push his little red wagon around. And at this point, I’m just trying to focus on the ‘adventure’ quality of all of this. Despite the blood, sweat and tears.

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Here’s to hitting the ground running, and to starting a farm in May.